We have reached Rivendell, and all is peace and quiet for the moment. In the House of Elrond is time and space for rest, and reflection, and healing, especially for our brave hobbit Frodo, who has suffered so much since setting out from the Shire. The Old Forest, the Barrow, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop: all have left Frodo exhausted, both physically and mentally, and injured to various degrees.
Under the masterful art of Elrond and Gandalf Frodo now can recover, but not fully. As Gandalf sees, “There seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand that lay outside upon the coverlet.” Gandalf further wonders whether Frodo “may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.”
Curious remarks, and words perhaps obtuse. Without spoiling the unfolding story ahead, this “feature” of Frodo’s transformed body – this transparency, this unnatural nature of his left hand – does not reappear, either as a surprising aid in danger or as a major point of reflection. Certainly Frodo’s wound from the Black Rider will resurface, and he recall it (and that of another injury) on the anniversary of its occurrence every year he remains in the lands of Middle-earth. Yet what is the interest in the “transparency” of Frodo, and what insight does it dig up for us?
First, Frodo’s transparency is a reminder. Frodo should not have survived his encounter with the Black Rider, for he was foolish, and a combination of his own unknown strength and the aid of Elves and men barely allowed him to reach Rivendell in time. Should Frodo have succumbed to this evil poison, he would have become, as Gandalf notes, a lesser wraith: entirely transparent to the physical world, without form and substance and will. Great and perilous moments leave us not unchanged, and injuries received from them never fully heal: even when we are by all accounts cured, we carry the scars of them with us, reminders of evils and burdens borne. The end of such painful reminders may not occur here and now, but instead may dwell beyond the circles of this world.
Second, Frodo’s transparency is nearly imperceptible. Only the wisest and keenest of eye may notice it. This is certainly true of Gandalf in his otherworldly power, and though it is not explicit, perhaps it is true of the fond love of Sam, who in rushing into Frodo’s room immediately grabs his left hand, studies it, and calls out its return to warmth. There are injuries and changes that are almost unnoticeable to the naked eye, transformations that cannot be perceived by the physical senses, alterations to the soul, for good or evil. A patient and discerning eye is necessary to recognizing these subtle movements, a trait highly valued in spiritual directors and counselors.
Finally, Frodo’s transparency is just that: transparency. It is not as much a “thing” as a “not-thing”, not as much a new state of being then a state of absences. Frodo’s wound has left him open to be filled, filled with something that may take him to an end unforeseen even to the wise. The light that passes through Frodo’s transparency becomes something unexpectedly beautiful: a “potentiality,” a reflection slowly unveiled, a person to behold. In that, Tolkien points us to pay special attention to Frodo over the pages ahead. For over the course of the adventure not yet halfway through, we should not forget Frodo’s lingering transparency, the remainder of his wound: for we are fortunate enough to see it with an aided eye, and learn from it something just out of sight about the oft-veiled soul.